One night in a bar, an old friend tells Ari Folman about a recurring nightmare in which he is chased by 26 vicious dogs. The two conclude that this is somehow linked to their Israeli Army mission 20 years earlier in the first Lebanon war. Ari can't remember anything about that chapter in his life. He sets out to talk to those he knew at the time to learn about the events and his role in them. Slowly, his memory begins to build, through surreal images.
Waltz with Bashir is a factual account of director Ari Folman’s efforts to recover lost memories of his military service in Lebanon in 1982.
Folman’s decision to render the images in stylised animation results in a ground breaking depiction of atrocity and its far-reaching consequences. Folman’s is a world where half-truths, dreams and imaginings mingle with 30-year old memories and the present day, and you don’t question it for a second.
A friend is haunted by a recurring dream in which he is hunted by 26 rabid dogs. Why so sure of the number, Folman asks? Because of the 26 dogs he shot in a southern Lebanese village one night back in the war, when their barking threatened to alert the PLO of the army’s approach. The nightmare has been haunting him for almost 30 years and he appeals to Folman for help to get rid of it. Instead, the exchange provokes something within Folman, and he is visited by his own wartime vision, a surreal scene somehow linked to the infamous Sabra and Shatilla refugee camp massacre, but he can’t for the life of him work out how; he’s forgotten all details of that period of his life.
To overcome his initial confusion and increasing frustration at forgetting seminal events, Folman reconnects with wartime friends and colleagues, who help piece together the fragments of his elusive memory.
The flashback scenes paint the war as anything but a boys’ own adventure. The soldiers are in over their heads and scared out of their wits. The few moments of machismo are fleeting, and serve only to set up another tragic course of events. A tank navigates a tight street, crushing parked cars like bugs. As it barrels along the open road its soldiers laugh out of the hatch with the carefree feeling of invincibility, as if setting out on a road trip with the fellas. When a bullet lands in the commander’s neck and the tank fills with blood all protocol, training and operating procedures are forgotten in the ensuing chaos.
The film is apolitical in so far as no side emerges with just cause to be proud. It doesn’t delve into the motives or political machinations that culminated in the assassination of Lebanese president Bashir Gemayel. It relies on eyewitness accounts to explain what took place when Gemayel’s followers in the Christian Phalangist militia shot truckloads of Palestinian refugees at the Sabra and Shatilla camps in an act of retribution. The ex-Israeli soldiers admit they knew what was going on but turned a blind eye to the violence.
The indictment of the Israelis for inaction goes straight to the top. Journalist Ron Ben-Yishai says he phoned then-defence minister Ariel Sharon to alert him to credible reports that a massacre was underway in the camps but received no indication that any action would be taken. 'OK, thanks for bringing it to my attention", Sharon is quoted as having said before hanging up.
Folman allows the viewer to draw their own conclusions but the implication is clear. His own selective memory is no worse than society’s collective amnesia, when it comes to judging the actions of our elected leaders.